The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A newspaper diminished by cutbacks prepares to cover another monster storm

All along the coast of the Carolinas, locals are heading out and first responders are moving in as the region braces for Hurricane Florence. (Video: The Washington Post)
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The last time a hurricane took direct aim at North Carolina, back in 1999, the Raleigh News & Observer mobilized most of the 250 people in its newsroom to cover the storm and its aftermath.

The newspaper deployed reporters and photographers up and down the Carolina coast and to inland communities to cover Hurricane Floyd. It stayed with the story for many weeks, detailing the damage, the death toll and the response of government agencies.

For its extensive efforts, the N&O was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in breaking news the following year (it lost out to the Denver Post, which won for its reporting on the Columbine High School shootings). “The staff just performed tremendously,” said Melanie Sill, then the paper’s managing editor and later its executive editor. “It was an all-hands-on effort.”

This time, things are different for the News & Observer.

As Hurricane Florence bears down on the Carolinas, the Raleigh newspaper is a shadow of what it was in 1999. As a result of the kind of downsizing and layoffs that have affected newspapers everywhere, its newsroom has shrunk from 250 journalists to just 65. Faced with steadily declining ad revenue, the paper has outsourced some of its most basic functions, such as copy editing and print design, to a sister newspaper.

But in many important respects, the News & Observer’s coverage of Florence may be superior to its acclaimed reporting two decades ago, said executive editor Robyn Tomlin. “I think we’re going to be 100 percent better,” she said Wednesday morning amid planning for the storm. “The way people get information has changed dramatically. And so has the way we report it.”

As Hurricane Florence heads towards the Carolinas, it looks to be tracking a pattern further south, bringing high winds, heavy rains and powerful storm surges. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

In fact, the newspaper could be a beneficiary of structural and technological changes in the news business that will offset at least some of the loss of muscle in its own newsroom over the years.

Thanks to a consolidation wave that swept over the declining newspaper business in the mid-2000s, the paper won’t be all by itself in chronicling the hurricane. Its reporting will be supplemented by journalists from seven other daily newspapers in the Carolinas, all of them owned by its parent company, McClatchy Newspapers of Sacramento. McClatchy bought some of the papers as their owners exited the business over the past 15 years.

The group — which Tomlin heads — includes a major regional outlet, the Charlotte Observer, smaller dailies such as the State in Columbia, S.C., and a string of papers along the South Carolina coast, including in Myrtle Beach, Beaufort and Hilton Head. The eight papers have been sharing resources and stories, such as a common regional forecast story.

The News & Observer will also count on help from journalists from McClatchy’s other newspapers and news bureaus, including one in Washington. In all, Tomlin expects to have about 220 journalists feeding stories, photos, videos and graphics to the News & Observer, or roughly the same number the paper had on the story nearly 20 years ago.

In addition, she notes that newsrooms now have more tools to gather information and to publish it faster.

More sophisticated storm-tracking and forecast models have helped pinpoint where the hurricane is likely to hit hardest. Social media posts from non-journalists now provide real-time tips about trouble spots. Smartphones and video apps make reporting faster and more vivid.

The Internet, of course, means readers won’t have to wait until the next morning to get their paper edition — if one can even be delivered. The newspaper now routinely updates its website with forecasts, road and school closures, evacuation orders, shelter locations, and the like. Assuming the power stays on, readers will also have access to these updates throughout the storm.

“The quality of information we’re able to provide is much better,” said Tomlin. So is the quantity: In the past week, the N&O has published about 250 news items about the hurricane, a figure that might be impossible given the limitations of a print-only world.

The downside? A limited staff raises questions about how local the N&O’s reporting will be and how long it can sustain its hurricane reporting.

Sill, who’s now a news-industry consultant, said one of the best elements of the paper’s reporting in 1999 was its ability to stay with the story for weeks and months afterward. Tomlin agreed, saying the real test for her paper will come long after Florence has moved on.

At that point, the focus for the newspaper’s readers will be less on the Carolinas and more on issues in their own backyards — rebuilding local communities, government responses, insurance issues and the storm’s human toll. All of that takes manpower.

“I think the biggest challenge for diminished newsrooms is the choices they have to make” about what not to cover in such circumstances, Sill said. “Those are hard decisions to make.”